Underwater photography takes patience, technical skill, and an adventurous spirit. This form of photography is practiced around the world and, every year, the best “under the sea” images are judged by the prestigious jurors of the Underwater Photographer of the Year (UPY) competition.
The UPY began in 2014-15 when Alex Mustard, Dan Bolt, and Peter Rowlands decided to revive a grand British tradition of underwater photography competitions. Mustard and Rowlands were joined by Martin Edge as judges in that first competition. Over the past five years, the competition has grown immensely. Over 500 international photographers competed to submit the top images across 14 categories (two of which can include above-water views). These categories are primarily based on stylistic and technical aspects—including Macro, Portrait, and Wide Angle. Some are also specific to British waters. In addition to being ranked within their categories, photographers vie for titles such as Up & Coming Underwater Photographer of the Year and Marine Conservation of the Year Award. This year's winning images capture stunning views from the warm waters of French Polynesia to the urban ponds of Glasgow.
After receiving over 4,500 entries from 68 different countries, the competition awarded the title of Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 to American photographer Renee Capozzola. The fascinating image showing reef sharks gliding under the surface of the sea in French Polynesia captivated the judges. In addition to the top prize, Capozzola won the Wide Angle category and is the first female overall winner of the UPY competition. She captured her winning shot, titled Sharks’ Skylight, in her favorite location to photograph sharks. According to Capozzola, “I dedicated several evenings to photographing in the shallows at sunset, and I was finally rewarded with this scene: glass-calm water, a rich sunset, sharks and even birds.” The judges have showered the image with praise for its immaculate lighting and composition. Chair of the panel Dr. Alexander Mustard MBE says, “This is a photograph of hope, a glimpse of how the ocean can be when we give it a chance, thriving with spectacular life both below and above the surface.”
For the judges and many photographers, the images submitted come from adventures over a very unique year. With travel generally limited in 2020, the competition added the “My Backyard” category for this year's award. The goal of the category was to explore the near and normal in pursuit of extraordinary images. Mark Kirkland won the category, in addition to the title of British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021. His image, entitled While You Are Sleeping, shows a bullfrog resting in Malls Mire, a small wooded area of Glasgow, Scotland. Behind the creature, the man-made lights of the city throw the micro, still world of the pond into sharp relief. “For a few nights each year, while the city sleeps, it [the pond] comes alive with frogs,” the photographer explains. “This frame was the culmination of 25 hours over 4 winter nights of lying stationary in darkness. Was it time well spent? Absolutely!”
To explore all of the winning images across the categories of the Underwater Photographer of the Year 2021 competition, check out the UPY winner's gallery. You can download a free yearbook of this year's images to treasure. Learn about the planned traveling exhibit of this year's winners, listen to commentary from the photographers and judges, and keep up to date on next year's competition on the UPY website.